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South Texas drought may be ending

History is telling Rio Grande Watermaster Carlos Rubinstein to hold off on declaring an official end to the lingering drought that has gripped south Texas for about a decade.

Despite plentiful rainfall and rising reservoir levels, Rubinstein said he'd like to see a few more months of wet weather in the river's basin, especially north of Falcon Dam, before proclaiming an end to the drought.

“The previous drought of record here occurred back in the 1950s,” he explained. “And right in the middle of that drought, we had a flood. But then after the flood the weather conditions returned right back to dry, so we'd like to see a prolonged, wet weather pattern throughout the basin before declaring an end to this current drought.”

While reservoir levels have risen to their highest levels in 10 years and inflows continue to add to the totals, a return to a dry weather pattern coupled with high irrigation demands next year could quickly reverse the trend.

“Time will tell,” Rubinstein said, “Everything looks real good right now, and I'm happy every time it rains; it's nice to be in a wet weather pattern. We're just hoping it lasts a bit longer.”

How empty glass?

As of July 9, the combined U.S. ownership of water at Falcon and Amistad stood at almost 72 percent and rising, levels not seen since 1994. U.S. ownership a year ago was only 34 percent.

While the new figures are encouraging, river operations manager Ruben Quintanilla said it's also important to look at how empty the glass is.

“We're still 23.5 feet of water short of being full at Falcon and 13 feet from being full at Amistad. That's a lot of water,” said Quintanilla.

Determining when the drought ends is almost as difficult as pinpointing exactly when it began, Rubinstein said, because the drought was brought on by both a dry weather pattern and low reserves. Those low reserves, he said, were due in part to a lack of water debt deliveries from Mexico over an extended period of time.

“We really started seeing the impacts of this drought in 1995, 1996,” he said. “1998 was a horrible year, so was 2002. And a drought can last eight to 30 years, but hopefully this current drought is over.”

A waning drought is especially good news for the Lower Rio Grande Valley's agricultural industry, which has suffered the brunt of the area's lack of water.

John Robinson, an agricultural economist at the Texas A&M Agricultural Research and Extension Center at Weslaco, said many producers simply didn't survive the water shortage.

“We've lost many growers in the last five to 10 years who, because of the drought, didn't generate the production and revenue they normally would have,” he said. “Some borrowed heavily just to hold on, but with multiple years of drought and no revenue to pay off those loans, the ability to borrow dried up and they had no choice but to go out of business.”

First crop failure

John Norman, a cotton integrated pest management entomologist at the Weslaco agricultural research center, said he saw the first drought-related cotton crop failure in 1989 and is happy to see a return to more rainy weather.

“The wet weather patterns of the last two summers have been typical of what we used to see back in the 1970s and early ‘80s,” he said.

“While 2002 was dry, it was not disastrous. But last year and this year have been very good. In fact, some will tell you it's been too good, especially those who are still trying to harvest their sorghum but can't get into their fields, or cotton farmers who want to defoliate in preparation for harvest.”

Norman was glad to see the rainfall records set here in June, but said cotton farmers now need dry weather through August to harvest what should be a healthy and plentiful crop.

“Cotton irrigation is done for the year for most farms,” he said, “and vegetable crops will soon need irrigation water, but those needs are greatly reduced compared to what other crops require because of its smaller overall acreage.”

Quintanilla said thanks to plentiful rainfall, this year's peak irrigation season has been one of the lightest in years, which not only saves growers the costs of having to irrigate, but also reduces the yearly drain on reserves.

He said no-charge pumping for farmers who draw water directly from the Rio Grande will also continue for another week or two, yet another indication that, drought or no drought, water is more plentiful now than it has been in years.

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